Saudi Arabia Is Ratcheting Up the Middle East’s Arms Race

It’s only a matter of time until Saudi military advancements force Iran to respond in kind.

By , a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, and , the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
A Saudi soldier takes part in a military parade January 15, 2005 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi soldier takes part in a military parade January 15, 2005 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.
A Saudi soldier takes part in a military parade January 15, 2005 in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. Abid Katib/Getty Images

New evidence has surfaced that China is assisting Saudi Arabia in building a ballistic missile program. Although initial reports about the program emerged in 2019, the Saudi capability to successfully launch missiles had remained uncertain. We now have the “first unambiguous evidence,” researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told CNN, that China is helping Riyadh to develop such advancements.

It represents an unmistakable inflection point, not only in Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia but in the Middle East’s arms race. Iran is sure to recognize that these Saudi advancements represent potentially dire implications for its defense posture. Tehran is likely to respond accordingly.

But if China is helping to push the region into dangerous and uncharted waters, it’s important to recognize that this dynamic has been decades in the making—and that insular Western policy helped pave the way to this grim crossroads.

New evidence has surfaced that China is assisting Saudi Arabia in building a ballistic missile program. Although initial reports about the program emerged in 2019, the Saudi capability to successfully launch missiles had remained uncertain. We now have the “first unambiguous evidence,” researchers at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies told CNN, that China is helping Riyadh to develop such advancements.

It represents an unmistakable inflection point, not only in Chinese military assistance to Saudi Arabia but in the Middle East’s arms race. Iran is sure to recognize that these Saudi advancements represent potentially dire implications for its defense posture. Tehran is likely to respond accordingly.

But if China is helping to push the region into dangerous and uncharted waters, it’s important to recognize that this dynamic has been decades in the making—and that insular Western policy helped pave the way to this grim crossroads.

Saudi Arabia is today filled to the brim with the world’s most advanced weapons. A steady flow of arms—chiefly from the United States, France, and the United Kingdom—has made it the largest importer of arms worldwide. Between 2016 and 2020, the country received a staggering 11 percent of global arms imports. Indeed, regardless of whether it is in a state of war or peace, Saudi Arabia’s favorite response to any geopolitical challenge appears to be a military shopping spree.

In stark contrast, Iran’s total arms imports during the same period amounted to a trifling 0.3 percent of the global total. Between 2015 and 2020, Saudi Arabia’s annual military expenditure fluctuated between four and eight times that of Iran.

But it is not just the size of the Saudi arsenal that dwarfs Iran’s. In terms of quality, too, Saudi Arabia’s aerial superiority over Iran is nothing short of otherworldly.

Iran’s options for protecting its airspace are severely restricted. Owing primarily to sanctions, the country can only dream of acquiring the advanced U.S. and European aircraft and air defense systems that have inundated Saudi armories. Furthermore, sanctions have made it immensely difficult for Iran to import or produce the spare parts it needs to keep its aging fleet of military aircraft operational. But while Iran struggles to keep its fleet of aircraft afloat, between 2016 and 2020 Saudi Arabia was able to steadily strengthen its long-range strike capabilities by adding 91 combat aircraft from the United States and 15 from the U.K. to its already oversized air force. During this period, it also purchased 14 additional air defense systems. Toward the end of 2020, Riyadh’s arms purchases also included seven U.S. anti-ballistic missile systems. Even before these recent shopping sprees, Anthony H. Cordesman, a senior military analyst with access to the Saudi leadership, noted that “air balance in the region decisively favors” the United States and the Arab countries of the Persian Gulf, which enjoy a “decisive advantage in air and surface-to-air missile quality and quantity.”

Cordesman acknowledged Iran’s “major limitations in the strength and modernization” of its ground and naval forces, adding that “the key weaknesses that help explain Iran’s emphasis on missile forces lie in its lack of modern air power and surface-to-air missiles. Iran has not been able to obtain major imports of modern combat aircraft from the US and Europe since the fall of the Shah, or any of the modernization programs critical to upgrading its US-made aircraft. It has only had limited imports of surface-to-air missiles and has not had access to US and European upgrades and newer systems. It has sought advance combat aircraft and surface-to-air missiles from Russia but has had little more than token success, and its claims of producing substitutes have so far been little more than hollow propaganda.” In other words, Western refusal to sell conventional arms to Iran, coupled with Western readiness to arm Iran’s rivals almost uninhibitedly, has helped spur the Iranian pursuit of ballistic missiles.

This program does not radically alter the balance of air power in Tehran’s favor, but it does provide Iran with a thin wall of military deterrence against the vastly superior—and Western-supplied—air power that encircles Iran.

But whereas a missile program is almost a matter of existential necessity for Iran, it strains credulity to argue that such a program would fulfill a similar function for Saudi Arabia’s defensive capacity. Indeed, even hawkish pro-Saudi voices vehemently opposed to the Iranian missile program concede that Riyadh “needn’t race Iran to produce or procure ballistic missiles. It already has a significant conventional military advantage.”

However, should the Saudis develop the capacity to launch a barrage of missiles in quick succession, something the Iranians have long mastered, they may be able to overwhelm Iran’s air defenses, something neither they nor the Israelis can reliably accomplish at the moment. And since there is no risk of losing pilots in a successful missile strike, the Saudi leadership may feel less inclined to exercise self-restraint in resorting to such weaponry, effectively putting a dent in a cardinal component of an Iranian deterrence barrier that has been decades in the making.

An operational Saudi ballistic missile program capable of overwhelming Iran with a large number of missiles launched in short order will likely strengthen Tehran’s resolve to further expand its missile program and reject Western calls for curbs, or even talks, on its ballistic missile program.

If prospects for an agreement to restrict Iranian missiles seem bleak today, it is in part thanks to Western policies that have led to a massive imbalance of arms and technology in the Persian Gulf against Iran.

For more than four decades, a monomaniacal obsession with Iran has prompted successive European and U.S. governments to coddle Tehran’s rivals and foes with weapons, almost to the point of saturation, while simultaneously denying Iran rudimentary defense capabilities. This uneven approach is now a well-established tradition that began with the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988). Through eight long years, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq enjoyed unswerving military, economic, and political support from the West—and the rest. And while Saddam was able to drub Iranian cities and troops with ballistic missiles and aerial bombings—often laced with chemical and biological agents—sanctions-ridden Iran possessed limited technological, infrastructural, or financial resources to adequately defend itself or to deter Iraq from carrying out future attacks.

Were it not for the disproportionate disparity in the Western approach during the war, the Iranians may have never been pitchforked into building their own ballistic missiles. And without an advanced Iranian missile program, the Saudis may never have felt the need to build a missile program that at once subsidizes China’s arms industry and facilitates a Middle Eastern ballistic arms race that undermines the nonproliferation goals set forth by Washington and its Western allies.

But if the China-Saudi Arabia ballistic missile cooperation is instructive, so is the attention afforded to it. Owing to a morbid fixation with Iran—a “Third World state with a fourth-rate military” in the words of the renowned historian Ervand Abrahamian—its missile program is the subject of lengthy media punditry and political attention. Every little development in Iran’s missile program is exhaustively and scrupulously reported, debated, analyzed, or simply condemned, by decision-makers, experts, and pundits. In contrast, reactions to the recent report about China’s transfer of such strategic technology to Saudi Arabia have remained largely muted.

That Riyadh would seek Chinese assistance to build a ballistic missile program also exposes the fallacy in an argument often used to justify U.S. arms sales to the country’s Arab allies: If Washington does not sell arms to Riyadh, Moscow and Beijing will. While it is true that, under the provisions of the 1987 Missile Technology Control Regime, Saudi Arabia is barred from purchasing ballistic missiles from the United States, the country already enjoys access to the most advanced U.S. and European weapons systems to date. Yet this does not appear to have quenched the kingdom’s insatiable thirst for even more weapons.

For more than four decades, Western governments have armed Iran’s rivals to the teeth while mostly failing to regard any of Tehran’s security needs as legitimate. Saudi Arabia’s moves to build a ballistic missile program should serve as a cogent reminder of the pitfalls of this uneven and shortsighted approach to Middle Eastern security.

Sajjad Safaei is a postdoc fellow at Germany’s Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology. Twitter: @SajjadSafaei0

Trita Parsi is the executive vice president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Twitter: @tparsi

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